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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 159-162

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Book Review

The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism

The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism. By Arif Dirlik. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997. Pp. xiii + 252. $60 (cloth); $25 (paper).

Relations between colonized peoples and their colonizers have long been a staple fare of intellectual inquiry and debate among anthropologists, historians, political economists, sociologists, and even geographers. More recently, literary theorists have entered the fray and created a whole lexicon to frame these relationships. If most historians have tended to view these literary incursions into their domain with benign amusement, the so-called "postcolonial" studies have become an increasingly important part of the contemporary intellectual landscape [End Page 159] . Reinforcing each other in a self-referential manner, a whole raft of "post"-marked academic specialities like "poststructuralism" and "postmodernism" have seemingly effected a seismological shift in our epistemological topography.

Contrary to their pretensions to historicize literature but consonant with their disciplinary training, postcolonial theorists tend to assume that representations of the world in fiction suffice as evidence, that the production and negotiation of meaning in literary encounters is all that matters. Not only does this obviate the need to confront contrary evidence, but it encourages, even at its best, a shallow form of self-referential navel-gazing. Shrouded in dense prose passing as theory, this assumption subverts the entire tradition of empirical research that is the bedrock of the historian's craft. Yet, precisely because of the impenetrability of this "discourse"--to employ a favorite postcolonial/postmodern term--most historians have been reluctant to confront the literature. Merely hoping that it will go away, of course, does not make the wish come true, and a style of academic scholarship irremediably hostile to empirical research has colonized many university departments and has massed on the frontiers of the historical disciplines themselves.

In The Postcolonial Aura, a collection of ten articles, five of them previously unpublished, Arif Dirlik mercilessly exposes the fundamental fallacies that permeate "post"-marked academic specialities, much as Edward Thompson exposed the Althusserian "orrery of errors" for an earlier generation of historians. The central article, which supplies the anthology with its title, provides a detailed critique of postcolonial theorists' claims to decenter the Eurocentrism that cages reigning metanarratives in history. Dirlik demonstrates that though "postcolonialism" is an amorphous concept embracing the United States and other settler colonies, as well as former European colonies in Asia and Africa (though curiously not those in Latin and Central America), and is coeval with capitalism, the attempt to dethrone metanarratives including capitalism is a subterfuge for political disengagement. After all, the primary reason we talk of Eurocentrism, rather than Sinocentrism or Indocentrism, is that capitalism enabled Europeans to dominate our planet. Ironically, Dirlik points out that the denial of the validity of metanarratives such as capitalism and its most uncompromising critique, Marxism, is itself due to the rise of global capitalism: the set of flexible production relations and "space-time" compression associated with the "new international division of labor," the consequent blurring of distinctions between the "three worlds," and the appearance of "Third World" conditions in the heartlands of the most [End Page 160] advanced economies. Associated with these changes have been large diasporic movements, and it is not an accident that discussions of multiculturalism among corporate managers and business magazines preceded discussions of "hybridity" and "in-betweenness" among postcolonial theorists. Given postcolonialism's political irrelevance, Dirlik argues for a resuscitation of the term Third World, not because of its descriptive utility but because it keeps alive the possibility of resistance to structures of domination. On another register, the emergence of major centers of capital accumulation in east Asia has meant that capitalism has become a truly global abstraction as, for the first time in history, non-European capitalist societies make their own contributions to its narrative. This has been paralleled by the transformation of Confucianism from an obstacle to capitalist modernization to the wellspring of capitalist...